[UPDATE: since publishing this article, people held at Waupun Correctional (WCI) were exposed to COVID-19 by a doctor who had recently traveled outside the country.
As we predicted, the DOC's response to this exposure has been irresponsible and inhumane. They put WCI on lockdown. One source confined at WCI reported that guards lied about the exposure, that some exposed people were moved to solitary confinement, while others were put in a hallway with unexposed people and that people with pre-existing conditions are not being tested. "These guards and administration only care about their fellow employees."
UPDATE: the DOC has suspended transfers to and from contracted jail beds to reduce spread of COVID-19. Additional updates from the DOC are maintained here.]
When COVID-19 gets into Wisconsin prisons, it will spread like wildfire and kill people. It will proliferate in our overcrowded prisons, and then escape and spread back outside the walls and fences. This is not a question of if, but of when. Absent drastic and unexpected action by Governor Tony Evers and the Department of Corrections (DOC) administration, it is incredibly likely that Wisconsin’s addiction to prison will create a virulent disease vector, jeopardizing everyone across the state.
There are no security measures strong enough to keep a pandemic as contagious as COVID-19 out of prisons. Once it gets in, conditions are ideal for its rapid proliferation and elevated mortality rates. There are no security measures strong enough to keep a rampant plague contained within a prison’s walls. COVID-19 will spread from the prisons to Wisconsin’s cities and towns.
The DOC has been operating an ongoing and often ignored humanitarian crisis for years. The conditions of this ongoing crisis make prisons especially vulnerable to a pandemic. The DOC and Governor’s response thus far has been unrealistic, inadequate and irresponsible.
As we are all learning from urgent calls and restrictions, mitigating the spread of a pandemic is always a matter of collective responsibility. Cancelling events and social distancing are practices we engage in out of a concern for each other and especially the most vulnerable among us: the aging and immunocompromised. Unfortunately, the government prevents more than 23,000 of us from practicing social distancing by overcrowding its prisons. In the context of global pandemic, we should understand the prison system as a massive disease vector. Wisconsin spends $1.2 billion per year cycling tens of thousands of people into incarceration and elevated contagion risk, then back out, producing a threat to public safety and wellness.
Wisconsin’s prisons confine more than 1,200 people age 60 and older. Due to decades of systematic medical neglect, many DOC captives have elevated rates of stress, chronic illnesses and other immunodeficiencies. As we all know, elderly and immunocompromised people are the most likely to die from COVID-19, so an outbreak in Wisconsin prisons is likely to have an elevated mortality rate.
Crowding and Contagion
The Wisconsin prison system operates at 132% capacity. In some facilities, like Dodge and Columbia Correctional Institutions, overcrowding exceeds 141%. Some of the smaller Correctional Center facilities are at 200% capacity. People are double and triple bunked. Dayrooms have been converted into dormitories crowded with bunk beds.
The Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) offers a particularly stark example of the pandemic-spreading potential of prison. This facility was designed to facilitate the DOC’s aggressive revocation policies. As reported by both conservative think tanks and nationally esteemed academies, the Wisconsin DOC’s Division of Community Corrections (DCC) is out of line with national norms. Wisconsin monitors more people on probation, parole, and extended supervision for longer periods, and puts those people in prison for technical rules violations more often than most states. When someone on supervision is incarcerated for an investigation, a short term sanction (90 days or less) or a mandated treatment program, the DCC typically sends them to MSDF.
The facility was built in 2001 because the DCC incarcerated Milwaukeeans so often they chronically overflowed the Milwaukee County Jail. Rather than dialing back supervision policies, Wisconsin built MSDF, and the DCC quickly expanded revocations to fill, and then overfill the facility, requiring that many cells be triple-bunked, with a third person sleeping in a plastic “boat” on the floor.
In March 2019, MSDF Warden Steven Johnson requested and received funds to convert 8th floor day rooms into dorms, expanding MSDF’s capacity and reducing number of triple-bunked cells. Johnson’s plan added 13 bunk beds split between two day rooms. He said these bunks would be used by people who are only there for 1-2 weeks.
MSDF was designed for 90 day maximum stays, and while some people have been trapped for more than a year in sunless, stale-air conditions, most cycle in and out in a matter of days or weeks. Located in downtown Milwaukee, the most densely populated part of the state, MSDF pulls people from the community and forces them to breathe the same, recirculated air, especially in the new dorm-style rooms. After a few days or weeks, it churns them back to the community. The government probably could not design a better tool for the spread of a pandemic if they tried.
Sixty-six percent of people doing time at MSDF are Black, and 44% of people
18 lives. With COVID-19, those same populations are now also targets of infection with a deadly disease.
Governor Evers promised he would close MSDF and reduce Wisconsin’s prison population by half on the campaign trail, but he has taken no substantive action toward these goals. In fact, his first budget invested $8.1 million into MSDF over four years, guaranteeing it would stay open. Warden Johnson’s dormitory construction project then expanded the building’s capacity. The Evers administration is continuing to expand, not reduce the prison system.
MSDF is only the most obvious example of how Wisconsin’s common practice of churning targeted populations through incarceration will aid the spread of COVID-19. However, every county jail, house of corrections, juvenile or immigrant detention center all have similar practices, rates of churn, and vectors for contagion. COVID-19 will travel easily between these different facilities.
One way the DOC handles overcrowding is sending 536 prisoners to “contract beds” in county jails across the state. Prison reform advocates have been raising the alarm about this practice for years because moving from jail to prison and back is destabilizing and expensive (costing the DOC $7.7 million). In the time of pandemic, contract beds multiply contacts between captives and routes for infection. Incarcerated people also travel to county jails for brief stays when dealing with court cases on new charges or appeals.
State prisons up north are not safe either. With the lack of widespread testing, and COVID-19’s long asymptomatic period, infected people will likely be transferred and spread the disease to another overcrowded facility before showing symptoms. Worse still, everyone sentenced to state prison in Wisconsin goes through intake at Dodge Correctional Institution (DCI), outside Waupun, WI. DCI also houses the main infirmary, so after an infected, but asymptomatic person is sentenced, the first place they will go is the same institution that holds most of Wisconsin’s elderly and immunocompromised captives.
Unrealistic Containment Hopes
On March 13, the DOC launched a COVID-19 information page on their website and suspended all visitation. They said they were sanitizing and disinfecting surfaces, educating people about handwashing, and that they “have medical professionals on-site monitoring the health of individuals in [their] care”. They might hope these statements are true, just like they surely hope to avoid an outbreak. Our correspondence with incarcerated people (sampled here) and knowledge of the system shows that these hopes are entirely unrealistic.
First, describing DOC captives as “individuals in our care” is at best ironically aspirational and more likely a patronizing distortion. Few if any people incarcerated in Wisconsin would describe the treatment they receive from the DOC as “care”. If the DOC actually cared, they would release people so they could be with their families and safe from the impending death trap. Instead, the DOC is following custom: shutting down visitation and work release. As usual, their first response is to increase harmful deprivations for the “individuals in their care”.
Second, our contacts tell us that no increased sanitation, prevention education or other safety precautions are occuring. Secretary Carr and his top level staff may have created policies calling for such things. They didn’t send out a prevention memo until yesterday, five days after publicly launching their official response page and weeks after such precautions were ubiquitous for outside society. The distribution of this memo and implementation of all the policies within it depend on wardens, unit managers, and sargeants. Many of those staff members loathe incarcerated people and have long treated them as deserving of nothing but misery and slow death.
Third, they do not have adequate medical professionals for on-site monitoring. It is unrealistic for them to think they’ll retain what they have. Health services in Wisconsin prisons have been negligently understaffed for years. The DOC’s pay rates are below market average, and working conditions are worse than most hospitals. Practices in Wisconsin prisons range from incidentally harmful to aggressively torturous. Working there requires nurses or psychiatric staff to ignore their hippocratic oath to “do no harm”. Many quit instead. Retention rates for nurses and other care workers is very low, and the DOC relies heavily on medical service temps and contract labor. This was already a crisis before COVID-19 arrived.
As the pandemic spreads in cities and towns across Wisconsin, the demand for medical professionals outside of prison will increase, further pulling medical staff away from DOC jobs. The temps and contract workers have even less job loyalty and may simply be reassigned to fill the broader community’s need. As staff departs, the DOC will struggle even more to contain outbreaks. The likely concentration of COVID-19 in prisons will add increased infection risk to the many reasons nurses have to leave the DOC. The situation is ready to spiral out of control.
On March 16, the DOC suspended work release, pulling people who they had deemed safe enough to work in the community back into 24 hour confinement. On March 17, the DCC slightly relaxed supervision policies, not to reduce the revocations that cycle people through MSDF as described above, but just to reduce in-person contact between DCC agents and the people they monitor. Again, these are policies not based on mitigating the harm of an inevitable outbreak, but merely hoping to prevent that outbreak from occurring.
The March 18 memo states that the DOC will “develop plans that ensure [captives]... can be tested in a timely manner.” The biggest failure of COVID-19 prevention nationally has been the delay in production and administration of test kits. Even now it seems only celebrities and people with government connections have easy access. Regular people who are showing symptoms struggle to get tested. If the DOC is only now “developing a plan” for testing, that plan does not appear to include actually having test kits or administering them. We know many carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic for weeks or have very mild cases. It’s possible COVID-19 has already crossed the wall into a Wisconsin prison. The DOC should be taking immediate action to mitigate it’s spread by releasing as many people as possible to reduce overcrowding and move as many people out of harm’s way as possible.
Culture of Callous Disregard
Wisconsin prisons do not provide enough hygiene materials for non-pandemic situations. Basic necessities like soap are severely restricted. Some prisoners only get little 1 inch by 2 inch plastic pouches a couple times a week. It’s not enough to wash hands once a day, let alone as frequently as recommended by medical experts. The only way to get more soap is to buy it from the prison canteen, because family or friends are not permitted to order soap from vendors like Access Secure Pak directly.
Many people held in Wisconsin prisons are indigent, some have jobs but they earn pennies per hour, and commissary items are drastically marked up. Buying your own soap is difficult even for those who do have income from a prison job. Others have outside support, friends or family who will put money on their canteen account, but the DOC often takes the bulk of that money. In 2015 the Wisconsin legislature passed Act 355, which allows the DOC to deduct restitution to victims from funds deposited to canteen accounts. The law allows the DOC to determine how much to take off the top of every contribution to someone’s account. Under then Governor Scott Walker the DOC set restitution rates at 50%, which received a lot of criticism at the time, but, like most things relating to prison, Tony Evers and Kevin Carr maintained Walker era policies, keeping the restitution deduction at 50%.
The prison also takes 10% away from every contribution for a release fund, as well as money for unpaid court costs and other various fees. Once it’s all added up, some people have 90% or more of their family’s contribution to their health and welfare stolen by the DOC. In February of 2019 Tyler Milton’s grandmother sent him $25 and the DOC took $24.86 in fees, leaving him with 14 cents. If the DOC does not change these practices now, people will be unable to help their incarcerated loved ones buy soap to wash their hands.
When incarcerated people start to get sick, the DOC’s response is likely to be a lockdown. The March 18 memo doesn’t use the word “lockdown” because the new administration prefers phrases like “restrict movement” which means the same thing. According to a reliable source, Stanley Correctional recently went on lockdown or “modified movement” due to an outbreak. People held there were told it was norovirus, but we do not know whether any tests were conducted to ensure COVID-19 wasn’t also present.
During a lockdown, movement in the prison ceases. People are required to stay in their cells or housing units. Food and necessities are brought to the cells by guards or porters. In some ways a lockdown will slow the spread of COVID-19 by imposing an extreme coerced form of social distancing. However, there are serious flaws with this approach.
First, the COVID-19 virus is communicable by air. We learned this to our horror with the cruise ship experience because both ships and prisons use recirculated air. Prisons are like giant cruise ships on land. Studies have shown that the virus remains viable on surfaces for 72 hours. So keeping people to separate cells doesn’t help, because the virus travels through the vents and rests on surfaces in cells. Incarcerated people can only keep themselves safe by following CDC suggestions: handwashing, sanitizing surfaces and keeping hands away from their face. This is vital, but many incarcerated people do not even have soap or have not been educated on prevention.
Second, Wisconsin’s overcrowding further reduces the effectiveness of a lockdown. There are simply too many people at too high a concentration to successfully isolate them. Last fall even solitary confinement units in Redgranite and Stanley Correctional started doubling people up, forcing two people to spend 23 hours a day in one cell together. Dormitories pack dozens of people into bunk beds in a single room because of overcrowding. There’s no way to contain an infectious disease in such overcrowded facilities.
Third, living in a locked down unit is a punishing experience. People are deprived of movement, meaning they can’t go to rec or work. State pay is also often suspended during lockdowns, as is canteen. This means people on lockdown will be even less able to purchase soap and adequate food. They will depend on the state-provided resources, tiny packets of soap and starvation rations. The DOC may enact policies to lift restrictions and provide more. For example, they’ve already suspended a $7 co-pay for any kind of medical check up, which has been preventing people from seeking medical care for years.
During a lockdown the administration at the top may say that canteen and state pay should be provided, but that doesn’t mean wardens, unit managers and sergeants will provide it. The institutional culture of the DOC is to treat anyone convicted of a crime as undeserving of basic humanity. Secretary Carr frequently admits that the DOC’s internal culture needs to change, but in the same breath he always warns that culture change is slow. When the COVID-19 outbreak hits Wisconsin prisons, Carr’s gradualism will cost lives.
Extended Lockdowns Bring Fatal Medical Neglect
A COVID-19 lockdown is likely to be serious, and extra challenging. Staff shortages and stress levels will be elevated. The challenges and consequences of such a lockdown are perhaps best exemplified by last fall’s lockdown at Columbia Correctional (CCI). Warden Susan Novak instituted the lockdown after months of escalating tensions in her facility led to three violent incidents of Black men defending themselves against racist guards who ended up seriously injured. The prison was locked down from November 8 to January 6 and during those months, conditions declined precipitously. Hot meals and showers were suspended for the first few weeks, medical treatment restricted, visitation cancelled. People who complained or wrote to outside supporters were issued conduct reports and punished. The lockdown quickly developed into a form of collective punishment, and the racially targeted harassment that caused it only escalated.
During the lockdown, Warden Novak demonstrated her lack of care for health and wellness by witholding flu vaccines. The vaccines got to the institution extremely late because of a manufacturing delay earlier in the fall. Even though incarcerated people are living in the most high risk conditions, apparently they’re the last to get vaccines. On December 2, William Ledford, a diabetic prisoner who’d been asking for the vaccine for weeks, learned from health services staff that they had finally arrived at CCI. Staff said they were waiting for Warden Novak to approve administering the vaccine. She didn’t. William and other immune compromised prisoners he knew filed repeated complaints and began work on a lawsuit, but they didn’t get vaccinated until December 23. Prisoners who weren’t complaining and threatening to sue weren’t vaccinated until January 10, after the lockdown.
Novak’s withholding of flu vaccine fortunately didn’t lead to an outbreak and deaths, but her other health service policies did. On December 3, a Muslim prisoner named Muhammad (Larry) Bracey died after requesting medical assistance or 2 days. Warden Novak had instructed her staff to only contact medical personnel if the request was an emergency. According to a shift report from the day of Bracey’s death, he was found “kneeling on the floor with his head down on the bed like he is praying.” Staff put his unresponsive body in handcuffs, then checked for a pulse.
On Jan 22, DOC Secretary Kevin Carr said he would not fire Warden Novak. He said she “did nothing to warrant firing”. We’ve heard that two guards were fired in relation to Bracey’s death, but apparently, Secretary Carr has no problem with a warden withholding vaccines for a month and telling her racist, poorly-trained guards to make medical decisions about emergency requests. Yet, we are supposed to believe that Carr’s administration will adequately prevent the spread of COVID-19 through Wisconsin prisons.
The unavoidably punitive conditions of a lockdown are a direct assault on incarcerated people’s mental health and safety. This section of our report will include discussions of self-harm, abuse, and suicide. We’ve received many shift reports from during the lockdown (one two three). We haven’t yet been able to compile all the information, but we can see that self-harm increased dramatically. Numerous people cycled through observation or suicide watch status. The methods of self harm also escalated. It is not unusual for people held in solitary confinement to cut or attempt to strangle themselves. A person slamming their head into a wall or the steel door in response to confinement or harassment from guards is also common. The shift reports from Warden Novak’s lockdown get much stranger, describing grotesque events like people shoving shards of plastic up their urethra or swallowing metal shavings. One man swallowed and passed a toenail clippers.
The week of January 13, after Novak’s lockdown was finally lifted, two more people died. The first was a white muslim who needed a wheelchair or walker to get around. Staff allowed him to slowly climb to the second tier of his range and then dive off. The second died of a heroin overdose, which may have also been suicide. He was also connected to the Muslim community inside CCI. If we allow the DOC to respond to COVID-19 with extended lockdowns we should expect that the virus will not be the only thing killing people. We should also expect guards to target their Muslim captives and drive more of them to suicide.
Many people held at CCI have described how conditions worsened with Novak’s presence. Before working at CCI she ran Taycheedah Correctional, where she oversaw another weeks-long lockdown in the spring. A recently-announced “warden shuffle” will move Novak to redgranite. There, she will likely bring her uniquely disruptive, racist, and escalatory leadership style to a new group of captives. She, and any other staff who share her approach ought to be fired instead. Their presence makes it harder for more humane staff and compassionate health professionals to do their jobs.
It is unrealistic to expect people suffering through an extended lockdown, on the verge of suicide, and faced with relentless dehumanization by their captors to cooperate with COVID-19 best practices. Indeed, the desperation of isolation often leads people to lash out at guards in the only ways they can, including spitting or flinging other bodily fluids. In October of 2018, also at CCI, a 19 year old kid named Kuan Barnett spat through his food slot at a guard named Russel Goldsmith, who came back the next night with his friend Michael Thompson and beat Kuan nearly to death. In the context of pandemic, this kind of conflict will surely escalate even further.
An Effective Response
Waiting until COVID-19 gets into and rampages Wisconsin prisons is simply irresponsible. Governor Evers’ administration has allowed the DOC to remain overcrowded, medically understaffed, and negligently operated.
The Governor must direct DOC Secretary Carr, his staff, and Parole Commission Chair John Tate II to take dramatic emergency action now, before a COVID-19 outbreak, to mitigate its potentially devastating impact on Wisconsin’s already unstable facilities.
First: Release as many people as possible to reduce dangerous overcrowding.
- Grant compassionate release to all elderly and immune-compromised people from Wisconsin prisons. The death penalty is not legal in Wisconsin but by continuing to incarcerate vulnerable people while a deadly virus spreads through the system Governor Evers will be effectively sentencing people to death.
- End crimeless revocations and release those held on them. Nearly half of new admissions into Wisconsin’s overcrowded prisons come not from new criminal convictions, but “rules only” violations. Eliminating this practice and releasing everyone currently doing time on a revocation is the single best way to reduce overcrowding and prevent the spread of COVID-19 though Wisconsin prisons. Also, endangering or shortening someone’s life because they violated a technical rule of supervision is grotesque.
- Release all parole-eligible people with re-entry plans or on less than 12 month defers. The parole commission under John Tate has been gradually increasing the rate of releases from a virtual standstill under the previous chair, Daniel Gabler. Many of the 2800 parole-eligible “old law” prisoners are at the lowest security levels, with release plans at the ready. Tate could expedite the release of these people so they can self-quarantine with family and not exacerbate the overcrowding and risk of COVID-19 outbreak in their prisons.
- Issue a mass clemency or emergency furlows for people convicted of low-level offenses and
people nearing release. Last year Governor Evers reinstated the pardon
board to much fanfare, but zero actual releases. He limited criteria to
people convicted of certain crimes who had finished serving their full
sentence, including supervision more than 5 years ago. Meanwhile, the
Republican Governor of Oklahoma recently released hundreds of people in a
Minimum security facilities are among the most overcrowded, and hundreds of people on work release in these facilities have been getting out daily to work in the community already. Releasing these people is surely a lower risk to public safety than forcing them to crowd prisons, turning them into incubators for disease.
Second: Give incarcerated people the means to protect themselves.
- Prioritize testing in prisons and distribute CDC prevention guidelines. Testing materials are limited nation-wide, and traditionally incarcerated people are the last to receive care when it becomes scarce, even if they are most at risk. This tradition cannot continue in today’s exceptional circumstances. Prisons are incubators for the disease, they will help it spread across the state. Monitoring these sites closely is necessary to slow that spread.
- Distribute soap, tissues, gloves, masks, gauze to filter vents, and disinfectant wipes or sprays. Handwashing is the most effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, but Wisconsin DOC provides some indigent people with barely enough soap to wash their hands once daily. Tissues and toilet paper are strictly rationed. Masks, alcohol gel or wipes are completely forbidden. All these things must be distributed free of charge immediately.
- Stop stealing money through Act 355. Wisconsin DOC is empowered to determine the percentage they take. The new administration continues Governor Walker’s practice of taking 50% or more. Secretary Carr must reduce this amount so people can buy needs with support of their loved ones.
- Make phone, email and tablet access free. The people who remain incarcerated need every opportunity to connect with their loved ones during this crisis.
- Support re-entry for people being released. Governor Evers needs to expand housing and social services in light of the pandemic already. These services should be made available for the emergency prisons releases we’re demanding.
Third: Drive sadistic racists and staff who dehumanize and endanger people out of the DOC.
- Fire Warden Susan Novak and other problem staff. Novak’s track record of medical neglect speaks for itself. Her regime of sadism and racially targeted abuse cost lives when there wasn’t a deadly pandemic going on.
- Create an environment that supports nurses and care workers. The DOC has a demonstrated inability to treat its captives as human beings deserving of care. The Department of Health Services should take over care-giving operations in the prisons. DOC staff should defer to medical and mental health professionals.
- Mandate emergency de-escalation and anti-racist training. The DOC staff is currently unprepared to manage the heightened tension of an effective COVID-19 containment plan.